Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Ken Russell, 1970
Starring: Richard Chamberlain, Glenda Jackson, Max Adrian, Christopher Cable, Kenneth Colley, Izabella Telezynska

While I am a huge fan of Ken Russell, it's been difficult in the past to get access to a lot of his films. I finally got a chance to see his Tchaikovsky biographical epic, The Music Lovers, and I was absolutely blown away. While this is not a film for everyone, it comes highly recommend for lovers of the weird and the unusual.

Tchaikovsky is a teacher at a music conservatory and is about to unleash his newest composition. He gets a lot of criticism from friends and family for his open homosexuality and public romps with his paramour, Count Anton. The only woman he really loves is his married sister, who he frequently daydreams about. His new symphony is met with mixed reviews and the president of the conservatory dismisses it as ridiculous. A wealthy, eccentric widow, Madame von Meck, hears it and decides to become his patron. In an effort to become more respectable and impress his patron, he decides to get married.

A local nymphomaniac, Nina (Jackson), sees Tchaikovsky in passing and becomes obsessed with him. She begins sending him love letters that he responds favorably to, though everyone else disapproves. He marries her, but is unable to consummate their relationship. This, combined with the unexpected arrival of her mother, drives Nina slowly insane. Tchaikovsky has a breakdown and is invited to recuperate on Madame von Meck's estate. Their relationship has been solely conducted through letters, but she decides to see him in person. Count Anton also returns, but is rebuked by Tchaikovsky. Jealously, he reveals the true nature of their relationship to Madame von Meck, who locks Tchaikovsky out of her home and ends her patronage. With a failed relationship, a failed marriage, and alienated from his family and patron, Tchaikovsky deliberately drinks a glass of contaminated water and agonizingly dies of cholera.

Critically skewered, Russell's film is delirious, self-indulgent, psychedelic, and ultimately a wonderful portrait of artistic genius and its inevitable connection to insanity. Written by the great Melvin Bragg, the script is largely taken from a series of letters between Catharine Drinker Brown and Barbara von Meck. Though there are many truthful elements, a lot of Tchaikovsky's life was improvised by Russell. This might be hard to digest for more conventional cinema fans. There are many scenes of nightmares, flashbacks, and extended fantastical music sequences that will likely drive the unprepared viewer into a state of psychosis.

Some of the scenes are genuinely chilling with their wild, over the top presentation of madness. Nina's relationship with her mother is nauseating and her subsequent induction into a mental asylum is terrifying and saddening. For genuine Tchaikovsky fans, there are some beautifully arranged segments put together by Andre Previn and played by Rafael Orozco.

This is an incredibly personal film and I think a lot of the criticisms are unfounded. It's been called sensational, irresponsible, a garish fantasy, unstable, etc. To a certain extent, it is all these things, but what's wrong with excess? The film's reputation has improved in subsequent years. Thanks to Netflix, you can watch the film streaming, but there is sadly still no region 1 DVD available. If you need to own a legitimate copy, check out the VHS, though it is still outrageously expensive. If you enjoy The Music Lovers, check out Russell's series of films about composers, which include Elgar, Mahler, and Lisztomania.

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